FCC Moves to Open 5G Floodgates

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The FCC will consider making new bands of licensed and unlicensed radio spectrum available for 5G data networks, Chairman Tom Wheeler announced today.

His proposal would allow 5G communications to operate in a 14GHz unlicensed band, in addition to opening up some licensed high-frequency spectrum in blocks of 200MHz. If the FCC approves it in a vote scheduled for July 14, it will be welcome news to cell phone providers and chip manufacturers, which can take advantage of the higher spectrum thanks to advances in antenna technology.

"The big game-changer is that 5G will use much higher-frequency bands than previously thought viable for mobile broadband and other applications," Wheeler said in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

High-frequency transmissions and milimeter wave technology are prized for their low latency, which makes websites load faster and improves the quality of VoIP calls, among other benefits. The latency of current wireless data networks averages around 10 milliseconds, according to Wheeler. Based on early tests, 5G promises to reduce that by a factor of 10, down to 1 millisecond.

Carriers and antenna manufacturers are already testing lower-latency, high-frequency transmissions. AT&T and Verizon started last fall, and Google and Facebook are also evaluating the technology. While much of the focus of those tests is boosting speed—AT&T said it has reached speeds above 10 gigabits per second—Intel is touting 5G's ability to intelligently prioritize critical but low-bandwidth emergency communications over bandwidth hogs like music streaming.

Wheeler, meanwhile, sees his plan as furthering the ambitions of every company working on 5G technology, and also hopes it will enable more rural Americans to access broadband-speed Internet. That, of course, depends on how much 5G will cost and what its data caps will be. Verizon claims that more than 98 percent of the US population already has access to 4G LTE, but its customers could theoretically blow through their data caps in less than an hour.

The FCC proposal's other challenges include figuring out how the new spectrum will be shared. Satellite signals already occupy some of the high-frequency bands, as do federal government and military transmissions. Wheeler urged satellite and mobile companies "to come together to propose realistic ideas for their coexistence in the upper bands—and to do so quickly."

"Our 5G proposal is the final piece in the spectrum trifecta of low-band, mid-band, and high-band airwaves that will open up unprecedented amounts of spectrum, speed the rollout of next-generation wireless networks, and re-define network connectivity for years to come," he added.

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